From Zoo to You

“Though apart, we will get through this by pulling together” or similar sayings are heard more and more these days. We’re finding out how far this needs to go – maintaining our distance, working together and caring for others in new ways - as the current pandemic situation continues its course.

Just as COVID-19 is new to humans, it’s a novel coronavirus for other species too. While there is a feline coronavirus that’s known to affect wild and domestic felids, the question on COVID-19, which is a different virus, remained until a tiger at Bronx Zoo tested positive (using a test not used for humans).

Lee Richardson Zoo first heard the news through communications from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. We implemented increased precautions around the felid residents just like other zoos across the country. Zoo staff had been discussing these steps based on possible susceptibility and were about to put them into action as an extra precaution. The confirmed case came first, however, and was the trigger for actual implementation.

Sharing information is often the way zoos and similar facilities hear about occurrences of diseases, such as avian influenza or West Nile virus, that may affect the zoo residents. Although we work at different facilities, we pull together by providing each other with needed information and taking appropriate action to reduce the impact on the population.

Lee Richardson Zoo had already implemented precautions among staff (social distancing, increased disinfecting/sanitizing) based on recommendations from the CDC, KDHE, and Finney County Health Department. The zoo had also implemented precautions (wearing masks when we had to be within six ft) for other zoo residents that might be susceptible (primates and ferrets) based on recommendations from our zoo veterinarian and from others within the zoological veterinary community.

While staff are wearing protective gear within an expanded buffer zone and drastically limiting time in proximity to potentially susceptible animals, we are still providing the care needed to provide quality animal welfare and to maintain the facility. Zoo staff do not have a magic source of masks but were able to buy a small number of reusable masks (not the N-95 type). Some staff made their own following online directions for homemade masks. There are also relatives of staff members and zoo volunteers who did the same, supplying enough homemade masks to ensure all zoo staff were covered.

Although the zoo campus is temporarily closed to guests, staff continue to provide educational content for zoo fans who are at home. Edzoocation programs, keeper chats, and Zoo Pal segments are some of the programming that is being shared via social media. Conservation and nature-related crafts and activities are also available on the zoo’s Facebook page and website, helping those at home have something novel, fun, and educational to do.

Let’s not forget the animals at home. According to a statement by USDA, “Anyone sick with COVID-19 should restrict contact with animals, out of an abundance of caution including pets, during their illness, just as they would with other people. Although there have not been reports of pets becoming sick with COVID-19 in the United States, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus. If a sick person must care for a pet or be around animals, they should wash their hands before and after the interaction.”

Kristi Newland is the director of Lee Richardson Zoo.